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Vietnam's Cultural Diversity via 3 Versions of Sọ Dừa in Kinh, Chăm, Raglai Folklore

On Sọ Dừa’s birth certificate, how should one fill in the “ethnic group” field?

“Once upon a time, a poor peasant couple had to be servants for a nobleman…” — this is often how the chronicle of Sọ Dừa begins, a classic refrain that has enchanted generations of young Vietnamese. The lucky few who were rewarded tickets to Ngày Xửa Ngày Xưa shows would probably never forget the sight of Thành Lộc in a coconut costume with his limbs dangling hilariously and hair resembling dry coconut husks. The play’s exaggerated acting has helped many kids learn about humanistic values. Though there are many renditions of the folk story, its main narrative can be summarized in a few paragraphs.

Good things come to those who wait

A destitute couple work as servants for a nobleman. The diligent pair couldn’t have children. One day, the wife is heading to the nearby forest to scavenge for firewood when she comes across a coconut shell filled with sparkling rainwater. Parched and tired, she gulps up the water and later discovers that she is pregnant. She gives birth to a deformed limbless baby that’s as round as a coconut shell. When they are about to give the baby away, it begs to stay, promising to help out with chores. They agree and name him Sọ Dừa (Coconut Skull).

When he grows older, Sọ Dừa wants to help the family out and decides to ask the nobleman for a job as a herder. The cattle, under his care, become happy and healthy. The noble tasks his three daughters with bringing meals to Sọ Dừa in the field. The older girls are disgusted by his appearance and mistreat him frequently; only the youngest daughter is nice to the poor boy. One day, she’s delivering his lunch as usual when she hears the beautiful melodies of a flute, coming from a handsome cattle herder. The man disappears into the coconut shell upon sensing her presence. After a few encounters, she develops a crush on Sọ Dừa.

The crush turns out to be mutual, so one day Sọ Dừa informs his parents of his intention to ask for the young noblewoman’s hand in marriage. She, of course, accepts, to the astonishment of the older sisters. The nobleman thinks that the proposal is ridiculous, but plays along by demanding an outrageous list of dowry items, believing that there’s no way Sọ Dừa can fulfill them. However, every single demand is met on their wedding day, and, from the chamber emerges a handsome man who marries the kind sister.

Following the matrimony, Sọ Dừa studies for the imperial exam, gets good grades and is sent to foreign nations by the king as an envoy. He leaves his wife a flint stone, two eggs, and a knife to protect herself. Her jealous sisters conspire to throw her into the ocean, where a giant fish swallow hers. Using Sọ Dừa’s knife, she punctures the fish and breaks free; the fish carcass beaches on a remote island. She prepares a camp and then salts and eats the fish to survive. The eggs Sọ Dừa gave her hatch into a rooster and a hen.

One day, when an imperial ship passes by the island, the rooster crows: “Cock-a-doodle-doo, if it’s the envoy ship, please save my baby boo.” The ship anchors and Sọ Dừa steps out to rescue his wife. In the village, a feast is held in his honor; the evil sisters fake their condolences, not knowing that their baby sister is in the back room. When she steps out, they are mortified and wander off, never to be seen again.

How to get pregnant from drinking coconut water

 

The two prominent moral lessons imbued in the story are “great things happen to good people” and “don’t judge a book by its cover.” One could interpret that the true beauty of Sọ Dừa is the virtues behind his actions. For generations of Vietnamese students, these teachings have become well-practiced formulae in to be repeated in high school essays through college entrance exams.

Fairy tales are often used as didactic tools for forebears to pass down life principles and moral lessons to their offspring. Many might be able to relate to the ups and downs in the life of Sọ Dừa and his wife, and these narratives help appease ill-fated souls that somehow, life will find a way.

Still, the preternatural details in the story can raise the eyebrows of many readers young and old. I once asked my mom how pregnancies can result from a gulp of coconut water. Little did I know that this detail is a textbook expression of Vietnam’s animist beliefs — that every object has a soul. Spirited objects will transfer their distinctive characteristics into humans, as imagined by ancient storytellers. Like Sọ Dừa, the story of Thánh Gióng also involves an elderly woman getting knocked up after walking into giant footprints in the field. This also signals the surfacing of a larger-than-life hero.

The dramatic climax when Sọ Dừa’s wife was swallowed by a fish parallels the story of Pradyumna, the son of Krishna, in the Indian epic Mahabharata. Being engulfed by animals is a common trope in folklore, proving that, no matter how powerful mankind can get, nature is still the omnipotent guardian that we would inevitably need at one point.

This connection to nature is employed not only by Kinh Vietnamese, but many other ethnic groups, in their traditional lore, resulting in storylines with a number of similarities. In addition to the version of Sọ Dừa we know from the public school curriculum, other fascinating renditions do exist out there.

“Sọ Dừa” through the Chăm perspective

Some historical writings suggest that the Kingdom of Champa was composed of two clans: the Areca clan in the south (Kraukavamka) and the Coconut clan in the north (Narikelavamka). According to Dr. Nguyễn Văn Huy, an ethnology professor and the director of the Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, each of the clans has a folk tale that corresponds to its namesake plant.

“Once upon a time, a prince was born of a dry coconut frond, became the adopted son of a king, married a princess, and was later crowned king. It’s unclear who this king was as Chăm researchers and archaeologists have not found any trace of his existence.” The other clan also told a similar tale, albeit the frond is of the areca palm. If you’re wondering if this has any connection with the story of Sọ Dừa, you’re onto something. Chăm people passed down a version of this tale in which the main protagonist is called Cei Balaok La-u (The Coconut Shell Prince).

The first record of this folk tale in Chăm language was compiled in the French collection Contes et légendes annamites by Antony Landes, one of the first academics who specialized in Vietnamese oral lore. Today, the version can be found in the book Truyện dân gian của người Chăm (Chăm folk tales) by author collective Sakaya, published in 2017.

While this story bears some resemblances to the Kinh version, there are a few places where its path diverges. First, Sọ Dừa doesn’t ask his parents to be a herder, but to ask the king to marry his youngest daughter. The king sets a number of herculean challenges for the suitor to overcome, like herding a 1,000-animal ranch. Of course, Sọ Dừa easily tackles all tasks and gets a royal wife.

Second, when his wife is backstabbed by her sisters, she isn’t swallowed by a fish and actually dies. In this version, she reincarnates as a sea conch and is picked up by an elderly lady. Later, she manages to reunite with Sọ Dừa and they live happily ever after. All told, the Chăm rendition of Sọ Dừa still features animist details and didactic narratives, like miraculous conception and pressure-producing diamonds.

Sọ Dừa in Raglai culture: Do fairytales predate epics?

Within the borders of the Champa Kingdom, apart from Chăm communities, there are also clusters of villages of other ethnic groups, such as the Raglai people, living in what is now south-central Vietnam. A version of Sọ Dừa exists in Raglai culture as well, albeit not as a folk tale, but a historical epic.

This Raglai epic mentions a familiar name — Cei Balaok Li-u — which refers to a prematurely born boy shaped like a coconut who grows up in a poor family. This version's Sọ Dừa has a rigid determination and magical abilities as seen when he helps Raglai community fight rival settlements and demons who harass the villagers. In the epic, the warrior coconut takes part in 15 battles both on land and in the air; he even fights evil bandits on Chăm, Việt, and Hoa territories.

After warding off enemies, Sọ Dừa turns into a handsome man and marries the youngest Chăm princess. He finds a brotherhood with Kinh Vietnamese warriors and receives ample rewards from the Hoa king. The couple lives happily ever after with Raglai villagers and no one has to be sacrificed into the ocean anymore.

According to research by Sakaya, the authors behind the recent folk tale collection, the legend of Cei Balaok La-u in Chăm traditions is told in prose form while the Raglai version is often recited as a song. Academics categorize the Raglai version as a historical epic that explores the dynamics between social castes, ethnicities, and communities. Still, it might be incorrect to assert that the Chăm version existed before the Raglai version just based on more prevalent Chăm influences in south-central Vietnam. Dr. Phan Văn Nhật, who studies folk literature of Central Highlands communities, opines that the existence of Raglai “Sọ Dừa” is an example of acculturation. Ancient Chăm might have adapted Raglai elements and vice versa.

Even though they share some characters and storytelling motifs, each Sọ Dừa version has its own progression and cultural adaptations thanks to their root community’s own historical setting, geographical region, and natural surroundings. From these starting points, they develop in accordance with different storytelling methods and styles. Be that as it may, the existence of the three versions from Kinh, Chăm, and Raglai communities all contribute to the cultural diversity of Vietnam, something deserving of conservation above all debates of what belongs to whom.

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